The Washington Nationals are in a tough position. Their top pitcher, 23-year-old Stephen Strasburg, has already set a career-high for innings. He's roughly a year removed from returning to the game following Tommy John surgery that prematurely ended his first campaign. This is all good reason for being cautious with their young ace, but somewhere between recovery and today, the Nationals started to contend.
Strasburg represents both the present and the future for the Nationals, and their decision to shut him down tells you that they feel he has far too much to offer in the latter to justify risking his arm in the former. If early-season word is to be believed, they're already planning on pushing him significantly further than they had planned. They would have to think his future is worth a lot, given this is the first time the franchise has been in first this late in the season since the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, when they were still the Montreal Expos. The city of Washington has waited even longer for a playoff berth, as the Texas Rangers iteration of the Washington Senators never made the postseason, and the Minnesota Twins version last did so in 1933.
That's just how special Strasburg's arm is, though. His career has the potential to be franchise-changing and historic, if he can just stay healthy. That last bit is the key here.
Playoff-bound clubs protect their young pitchers often -- Strasburg isn't the first to get this treatment, but he is the most high-profile. Just last season, the Rays allowed 24-year-old Jeremy Hellickson to throw 189 innings in 29 starts, with an average of 102 pitches per outing. The 2009 Red Sox gave 24-year-old Clay Buchholz 191 innings and 33 starts between Triple-A and the majors, with the right-hander averaging just 95 pitches per start in his 16 in Boston. Caution was shown with each, with the Rays moving to a six-man rotation for a time in the second half, and the Red Sox keeping close watch on Buchholz's pitch count. The thing to remember, though, is that this level of care went into pitchers who were older than Strasburg is now -- at 23, Strasburg is still within the realm of the injury nexus.
Nate Silver and Will Carroll wrote of the injury nexus for pitchers back in 2003 at Baseball Prospectus. In essence, the strain that the pitching motion puts on an arm is at its greatest when a pitcher is very young. The Red Sox and Rays were both careful with their young arms, despite both being in that (relative) safe zone within the injury nexus. What the Nationals are doing is more extreme, but it's because they are in a more extreme circumstance. From the article:
Even for a successful, established pitcher, the risk of catastrophic injury is meaningfully high throughout his career, almost certainly at least 10 percent in any given season. However, the risk does appear to be to some degree dependent on a pitcher's age. For the very young pitchers in our study--ages 21 and 22--the risk of injury is significantly higher, in excess of 20 percent. Injury rate then drops dramatically as a pitcher matures physically, reaching its lowest point at roughly age 24, while rising gradually throughout the remainder of his career.
This was originally published in February, 2003. Ten months later, 22-year-old Mark Prior threw inning 234 of the season. He had eclipsed the 200-inning threshold in 30 regular season starts, averaging seven innings and 113 pitches per appearance, and then threw another 23-plus frames in October. Prior would never throw 200 innings in a season again, and has not appeared in the majors since 2006. It's not for a lack of effort, as he's bounced from team to team in the hopes of working his way back through the minors, but as the now 31-year-old struggles with his control in Triple-A, there's a very real chance his dream of a return to the majors might never be realized.
Prior was Strasburg before Strasburg was even a teenager. He was the greatest college arm ever, one with excellent mechanics, and one of the game's most exciting pitchers from the moment he came up. With Strasburg, it was the elbow, but with Prior, it was his shoulder. And it happened, in large part, due to the extreme workload of his age-22 season.
That's not to say every pitcher is going to get hurt given a large workload. The problem is, oftentimes, you don't know until you've tested the theory. Even workhorse Justin Verlander was handled relatively carefully back in 2006, when he was Strasburg's age, as he tossed 186 regular season innings over 30 starts. He worked his way up to who he is now: in 2012, the 29-year-old has thrown 175 frames in 24 games. The Nationals would like Strasburg to have the future Verlander has, rather than the one Prior is living, and that's why they're going the extreme route.
Is that level of caution necessary? After all, the 2010 Giants let 20-year-old Madison Bumgarner throw 193 innings in 32 starts before adding 20 postseason frames on top of that.. He's been healthy and productive since, with no repercussions from an 82-inning jump that Strasburg would similarly make. For every Bumgarner, though, there's also a Mat Latos, or a Tommy Hanson.
With the Padres in contention in 2010, Latos, then just 22, saw his career high in innings move from 123 to 184. He posted a 5.66 ERA in the last month, struggling with his command while averaging just five innings per start. Like Strasburg, Latos had endured elbow issues in his past, and dealt with early season shoulder problems in 2011. Latos has been productive since, but never quite as good as he was in 2010 prior to that last push for a playoff spot.
Hanson, also 22, jumped from 138 to 194 innings as the Braves pushed for the playoffs in 2009, and he's spent much of the three seasons since dealing with shoulder problems. They don't all work out like this, but they don't all become Bumgarner, either.
Because of this, there's no real right or wrong to what the Nationals are doing. They're trusting their remaining (and impressive) starters to get the job done in October, and betting on a brighter future from Strasburg because of it. It's difficult to tell just how his arm would react to throwing even more, but as Silver, Carroll, and young pitchers since have reminded us, sometimes, avoiding risk is your best course of action.